The rich man can pull out his checkbook and easily commission a well fitting suit. For the impecunious dandy, selecting a proper suit is more of a challenge.
But rich man and poor man face an equal challenge in choosing a necktie, without doubt the sartorial selection most fraught with peril.
For just as the most luxurious suit is ruined by a bad fit, so is an otherwise flawless outfit marred by a necktie that draws excessive attention to itself. Equally bad is the light necktie swallowed by shirt, as the otherwise dapper Fred Astaire illustrates at left.
One has only to look at news anchors and television hosts — men who don neckties nightly for the scrutiny of millions — to see how perilous is the selection of a proper tie. For in 99 percent of cases the TV personality’s tie falls somewhere between poorly chosen and downright ugly.
There is no place for creativity in the choosing of a tie. A tie should not make a statement. It should not be artistic. Instead, it must somehow pull off the contradictory feat of being boldly elegant yet not visually distracting.
The first step is to choose a tie in an established and recognizable motif. If the viewer’s eye strains for even a fraction of a second to digest the design of your tie, to make sense of its abstract shapes, kandy kolors, or vulgar orgy of amoebas, then the tie is a failure. It should never overpower the wearer’s face. Moreover, it is easier to forgive a tie that is overly conservative than to forget an eyesore.
For over a decade, a comparatively long time in my modest sartorial career, I have espoused only three types of neckwear motifs: small dots, houndstooth checks and regimental stripes.
The first two belong primarily to my days in the fog and relative formality of San Francisco. I was also younger then and prone to bullhorning my dandyishness with boulevardier ensembles that included foofaraws like bulbous boutonnières, waistcoats with watch fobs, and pink shirts with white collar and cuffs, a particular weakness that I now look back upon with the deepest contrition.
These days, when I think shoulder padding is pompous, I prefer to wear striped ties to the sedate chamber concerts I attend among the gentle folk of Pasadena, California.
Some men emphasize the sophisticated mixing of patterns as the apex of elegant dressing. Perhaps it’s the 19th-century influence on me, but I’ve always believed a dress shirt should nearly always be solid, with white the best choice, followed by blue and pink. Yellow is another option, though it is likely to be regretted the following morning in a kind of sartorial hangover.
And since most jackets are of a dark hue, balancing light and dark has always been the nicety I’ve focused on, as opposed to, say, the Quadruple Lutz of four combined patterns, as championed by our own Nick Willard, and which I prefer to call the Quadruple Putz.
But lately I’ve come to realize that despite paring my collection down to a very modest number, I always reach for the same few neckties, either a navy with silver stripes, or a couple of navy and gold stripes, which compliment my flaxen hair.
For not only must the jacket-shirt-tie combination balance light and dark, but the necktie itself must also balance light and dark within its design motif.
The blue and pink tie pictured above (which naturally is not mine) is a fine example of a conventional striped motif that goes with absolutely nothing. Because it lacks a dark or anchor hue, its only possible application is in summertime ice-cream-suit ensembles.
You see, a tie must have the right amount of pop. Too much, as in the example above, or in Astaire’s swallowed-by-shirt choice, and the tie does not balance the dark of the suit. But too little, such as the regimental stripe of navy and dark red, and the tie fizzles because the pop color does not break sufficiently free from the anchor color. In the stack of Brooks Brothers ties above, the navy and gold obviously has the preference.
The best tie combines an anchor hue, typically gray or navy, with a pop hue. And there must be pop, for as Pearl Binder notes in “The Peacock’s Tail,” the neck has been the focal point of masculine self-assertion in all cultures and at all times.
The image at right is a good example of the balance of light and dark. The dark base of Astaire’s tie anchors it to his trousers and slicked hair, while its silver stripe balances the shirt and provides the pop.
Meanwhile, the spectator shoes Astaire is changing into provide even further balance of light and dark, with the added bonus of podiatary pop.